With 100 days left before the US election, American democracy hangs in the balance
In about 100 days the most consequential American election since 1932 will take place. By any measure the winner should be a foregone conclusion: the Democratic Party’s candidate Joe Biden.
By the measure of polls President Donald Trump is in deep trouble. The big picture is this: polls conducted last week show him 15 points behind Mr Biden. In March, the former vice president’s advantage was just two points, a statistical tie.
At a more granular level, at this same point in the election campaign of 2016 Mr Trump was leading in the suburbs, where presidential elections are won or lost, by 10 percentage points. Today Mr Biden leads by nine points, a swing of 19 per cent.
The polls echo historical precedent: Mr Trump is running for re-election in the middle of a crisis, like Herbert Hoover in 1932 as the Great Depression gripped the US, or Jimmy Carter in 1980 as the Iranian hostage crisis and inflation swept the country, and the first president George Bush in 1992 who saw a national mood swing from the sugar high of sweeping former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait while a deep recession and slow recovery ruined the economic prospects of millions of voters.
All three men lost their re-election bids. Can anyone look at the uncontrolled surge of the coronavirus pandemic with its associated mass lay-offs and shrinking economy plus the civil unrest since the murder of an African American, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis policeman and not see a national situation that is at least the equal of the crises that sank presidents Hoover, Carter and Bush?
And yet, it is a measure of just how norm-shattering, traumatic and, frankly, bizarre Mr Trump’s years in office have been that virtually no one feels confident that the previous history is a guide to what will happen on November 3.
Mr Trump has shattered every rule and norm of presidential behaviour in the past three-and-a-half years. In a perverse form of political genius he has used the tools of modern communications – especially social media platform Twitter – to get inside the collective American psyche. His tweets have shifted the entire national conversation on to Twitter, where facts are few and the character limit in tweets means snark, abuse and expressions of fear dominate.
The media, playing by the old rules and norms of giving a president’s statements credit for being factual, has been forced to repeat his lies and spend far too much time analysing his tweets than reporting news.
Here’s an example of how deeply Mr Trump has disrupted the status quo: recently reporters granted one-to-one interviews have been asking him, if he loses on November 3, will he respect the result and leave office. That the question even has to be asked is shocking. This happened most recently last Sunday in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace. The President’s non-committal answer was he would “have to see”. Then Mr Trump added: “I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no.”
He then went on to criticise yet again voting by mail, something the Democrats want because of the pandemic. Mr Trump said it would “rig the election”.
People who live in parts of the world where the ballot box rarely brings change will be familiar with the tension of "will the vote be fair, will the result be respected?". In America this tension is unprecedented.
This has led to a kind of panic among opinion formers and leading academics. Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, an expert on how societies are taken over by dictatorships, put up a 20-tweet thread on Twitter last weekend with advice on how to resist authoritarianism. It begins: “Do not obey in advance.” It ends: “Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas, who has studied many contentious elections around the world, wrote last year: “For many countries, elections don’t involve just counting ballots but also counting bodies.” He then outlined his fears for the presidential election.
“The bulwarks that protect a country from political violence can be breached if the leader of that country dehumanises certain groups of people, targets political opponents with venomous rhetoric, explicitly encourages violence and then rejects the results of an election. Trump raises all four of those red flags,” Mr Klaas wrote.
Neither Mr Snyder nor Mr Klaas is anyone’s idea of a radical. Their sense of alarm is a reflection of how deep the despair is in America as Election Day approaches.
In recent weeks it seems Mr Trump and his advisers have been working hard to prevent the election from taking place. His administration’s approach to the pandemic is to let it surge. Last week set records for new cases. More than 143,000 have died. It also looks like he is trying to provoke some major act of violence that might allow him to try to cancel the election.
The images of men from federal agencies in full combat gear but wearing no identification snatching protesters from the streets of Portland, Oregon, and throwing them into unmarked vehicles recall similar scenes in Chile and Argentina, when democracy was suspended in those countries during the Dirty Wars of the 1970s. The scenes will certainly excite the 35-38 per cent of Mr Trump’s unswayable support. The question is whether these actions will incite real violence in return. Every day it seems like a neck-and-neck race for America to make it to November as a functioning democracy.
There is a reality that is too easily overlooked in the Twitter-stoked paranoia gripping American political life. It’s a reality I have covered as a journalist during the past four years.
I was in Washington for Mr Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The day after I was part of the Million Women March crowd that was at least double the size that turned out on the Mall to watch Mr Trump take the oath of office.
In the mid-term elections of 2018, in suburban Atlanta I recorded a group of women as they prepared to canvass their neighbourhood on behalf of the Democratic candidate. They were upper middle class (it was a very nice suburb), for the most part in their 40s and 50s, many had professional qualifications: law degrees and MBAs. Some had been on the Million Women March. Political activism was new to them. The work of those women and similar groups across the country was instrumental in the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives.
In 2019’s elections, that same female-driven energy propelled the Democrats to victory in governor’s contests in three southern states. Democrats won both houses of the Virginia legislature, an astonishing result.
There is no reason to think that momentum has dissipated.
Finally, there is this easily forgotten fact: in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the election by nearly three million votes. Mr Trump was put into office by the archaic mechanism of the Electoral College. The states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin provided his winning margin in the Electoral College. Today’s polls show Mr Biden leading Mr Trump in all three.
To go back to the beginning: by any historical measure, if the vote is free and fair and all the ballots counted, Mr Biden is on course to become the next president.
The next 100 days will be a measure of how much Mr Trump’s norm-shattering first term has upended historical precedent and set America even further down a path towards uncertainty and political dysfunction.
Michael Goldfarb is the host of the First Rough Draft of History podcast
Updated: July 24, 2020 01:17 PM